Concluding HOME’s Uprising! Spirit of ’68 season of films to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Paris uprisings in May 1968, Lindsay Anderson’s anarchic drama satirising English public-school life still packs a hefty punch half a century on.
Malcolm McDowell takes the lead role as Mick Travis, a sixth former at College House. Travis has a reputation for kicking against the system, upon his arrival at the start of the new term he is referred to as “Guy Fawkes”. His rebellion is against the conservative and restrictive boarding school life, where there is a clear hierarchy among the students from the “whips” who are the House prefects to the new, younger students referred to as “scum.” If…. was McDowell’s first film but he delivers such a confident performance, full of bravado, that it was no accident that Stanley Kubrick cast him as Alex in his controversial film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange in 1971.
Of note is the scene where Travis and his friends Knightley and Wallace, are punished by the whips for their disruptive behaviour: Knightley and Wallace are subjected to four blows of the cane each and when Travis comes in for his turn, he enters with a knowing smile, certain that he can endure four strikes of the cane. However, he is subjected to a longer punishment. When it is over he slowly stands up right and wipes the tears from his eyes before turning around, walking up to the man who had administered the beating, shaking his hand and thanking him. McDowell conveys the air of someone who is close to breaking point but is just about keeping it together. It’s a wonderful performance.
The film is noted for its formal experimentation which, like other films HOME chose for their season, owes a fair bit to Brecht’s theory of ‘Epic Theatre’. If…. is split into eight sections, each preceded by a title card. There is also a shift between colour cinematography and black and white cinematography which produces a startling effect which breaks the illusion that what we are seeing is real (despite believable performances from the cast). This is an interesting technique, albeit one which was motivated by practical matters rather than outright artistic temperament: pressed for time at a location being used for the school’s chapel, Anderson decided to light the scene for filming on black and white film stock rather than the colour stock the rest of the film had been shot in. Anderson, however, decided to commit to the idea and shot other scenes in black and white as well. Most notably, many of the black and white scenes have a more dreamlike, surreal feeling to them than the colour sequences do: the scene in the gymnasium where a junior boy, Philips, is transfixed by Wallace performing a gymnastic routine (which foreshadows a relationship between them0. Another striking black and white scene features Travis and Knightley entering a café after absconding from the school rugby match where they are served coffee by a young woman (nameless, referred to in the credits as The Girl) and Travis violently kisses her; The Girl slaps him but then approaches him and the two pretend to be tigers and fight and wrestle each other. One moment they are fully clothed, the next naked, with the audience unsure if the wrestling continues into sex or if the whole thing is just in Travis’s head (The Girl makes further reappearances in the film but she often appears out of thin air, as though she were the figment of Travis’ imagination).
If…. also contains some absurd humour: in one scene, House Master and drama teacher Mr. Kemp (played by Arthur Lowe, better known as Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army) sits on the edge of his bed singing, while his wife plays the flute in her bed (the conservative, older, teachers resist sex whereas the young men indulge in it), another hilarious but offbeat moment comes when Travis, Wallace, and Knightley have to apologise to the school Chaplain after attacking him during a military drill – the Headmaster pulls open a large drawer out of which the Chaplin sits up and shakes hands with each boy in turn, accepting their apology.
The film’s climax is suitably apocalyptic. As the school celebrates its ‘Founders’ Day’ with students, parents, alumni, and honoured guests, Travis and his friends, plus Phillips and The Girl, take up arms and shoot at everyone else from the rooftops, until shots are returned, the Headmaster pleads for a ceasefire but is brutally ignored and the film ends with all-out war between the establishment of the school and Travis and his small band of fellow rebels.
“Violence and revolution are the only pure acts,” remarked Travis earlier in the film. If…. caused a sensation back in 1968 and, while it may not seem quite as shocking in 2018 as it has become part of popular culture, it remains a bold testament to the spirit of revolution and rebellion.
Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 22/5/18